Northam’s laid-back style at issue in Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

ARLINGTON, Va. — Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic former governor of this state, was trying to pay the man running to be the next governor in Tuesday’s primary a compliment.

“To me, he sounds like a pediatrician,” Kaine said of Virginia’s Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, while speaking to supporters Saturday morning.

That’s because Northam is, in fact, a pediatric neurologist who practiced at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk for more than two decades, following eight years as an Army physician. Kaine, whose own brother is a pediatrician, said Northam had the same “compassionate connection with people” that he sees in his sibling.

Northam’s personal manner is marked by gentleness and attentiveness. But while those traits are admirable, his low-key style has become the biggest contrast between him and the other Democrat running for governor in Virginia, Tom Perriello.

Virginia Democrats will go to the polls today to choose between Northam and Perriello, and the winner will face off with the Republican nominee, who is expected to be Ed Gillespie, a former White House adviser to President George W. Bush. All available public polling has shown Northam and Perriello to be neck and neck.

At a time when most Democrats are riled up about the Trump presidency, Northam’s calm, reserved manner doesn’t match what some are looking for in party leaders. And as the Virginia governor’s race heads toward the fall, it will draw national attention because there are no other major elections coming up besides the New Jersey governor’s race.

That’s not to say Northam is the underdog. Despite the presumption by some that Perriello’s support from Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren means he is the choice of the left, Northam has been endorsed by progressive groups like NARAL, the National Organization for Women, Equality Virginia and the Pride Fund, and gun control groups like the Brady Campaign and the Newtown Action Alliance.

Northam also has the support of most of the state’s Democrats, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the state’s two U. S. senators, Kaine and Mark Warner. Most of the Democrats in the state legislature also back Northam, as are three of the state’s four Democrats in Congress (the fourth, Gerry Connolly, is neutral).

All that institutional support is going to help Northam net votes in what will be a low turnout primary election on the second Tuesday in June. “That’s normally not the time that people are thinking about voting,” Kaine said.

Perriello has been endorsed by a host of former Obama administration officials, such as Valerie Jarrett, Dan Pfeiffer, Kathleen Sebelius, Jon Lovett and others. He’s had some success in Virginia by getting support from some local unions, and from environmental groups who like his stance against two proposed natural gas pipelines.

Lovett, a former Obama speechwriter, campaigned with Perriello recently and mentioned twice in a brief speech that he wanted to support politicians who “sound like normal human beings.”

Kaine seemed to be combating the idea that Northam can’t connect with the average voter when he made his pediatrician comment. “I don’t think Ralph talks like a political science guy,” Kaine said.

Moments later, Kaine addressed another critique of Northam: that he’s not fiery or tough enough. “He appears pretty mellow. Don’t tussle with him on a matter of principle,” Kaine said. “He has no reverse gear.”

From left, Sen. Tim Kaine, supporter Hazel Rigby, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam in Arlington, Va., earlier this week. (Photo: Jon Ward/Yahoo News)

Perriello’s supporters say he’s more of a fighter than Northam. They shrug off his more conservative positions on abortion and guns in the past by pointing out that Northam, 57, voted for George W. Bush for president, in both 2000 and 2004. (Northam has said that “at the time, I didn’t pay much attention to politics.” He became a state senator in 2007, and lieutenant governor in 2013.)

And the Obama crowd in particular loves that Perriello, 42, voted for the Affordable Care Act in 2010, despite knowing it would likely cost him his seat in Congress, which in fact it did.

Northam has Democratic establishment and liberal interest group support because he’s proven his liberal credentials as lieutenant governor, fighting against a transvaginal ultrasound bill in 2012 and helping McAuliffe push back attempts by the state’s Republican legislature to defund Planned Parenthood this year and last year.

But Perriello fans are energized by the former congressman’s talk of economic populism and racial justice, which Perriello claims is helping him win over both rural whites fed up with an unfair economy and ethnic minorities.

One of Northam’s biggest selling points is that he’s the responsible choice. He has the relationships with legislators in Richmond, and the experience there, to make sure the state government can function effectively.

“This is all about governance,” McAuliffe said at the same event here in Arlington, after Kaine spoke.

Perriello’s response to this is to insist that politics doesn’t function through compromise anymore because the Republican Party has become so intransigent and unreasonable that there is no possibility of working with it.

“It’s been 20 years since the Republican Party operated that way. If the Republicans operated that way Barack Obama would have had a bipartisan stimulus and we would have Medicaid expansion in Virginia,” Perriello said. “They oppose softness. They oppose kindness. They actually take advantage of it. If you look at the most successful efforts of bipartisanship in recent years, they’ve all been by winning. And I don’t just mean winning elections. I mean going out and winning arguments.”

It’s a view of politics similar to the one made popular by scholars like Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in their 2013 book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” The alternative view, articulated by scholars like Jonathan Rauch and Elaine Kamarck, is that political parties have become so weak they have little ability anymore to block extremist candidates in both parties from getting elected, or from bucking party leadership once in office. Thus, the theory goes, governance has fallen victim to politicians building their own “brands.”

Northam’s retort to Perriello, when asked, was more personal and, again, stylistic.

“I would change the verb ‘talk’ to ‘listen,’” Northam told Yahoo News. “I think it’s important to go and listen and especially hear what’s on people’s minds, and to let them understand why it’s important to have things like access to women’s reproductive health care, why it’s important that families have access to affordable and quality health care, why it’s important to promote responsible gun ownership.”

“And I agree, after you listen and hear, then we take that message back to Richmond and sit down with people and the voters put pressure on their elected officials. So it all works together, and I’ve been doing it for 10 years,” he said.

Several Republican operatives who have spoken privately to Yahoo News about Gillespie’s chances against Northam or Perriello are of the view that the charisma and energy gap between Gillespie and Perriello would be considerable, in Perriello’s favor.

But in a year when most Democrats expect the Trump presidency to be more than enough reason for Democrats to vote in droves this fall, Northam supporters think that renders Perriello’s talents as a candidate less vital.

Gillespie, 55, and Northam are both relatively conventional in the way they present themselves to voters. But Trump’s unpopularity, Northam supporters believe, will be an anchor around Gillespie’s neck no matter who their nominee is.

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